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Evan McFarlane highlights the digi-social promotional techniques Scottish football can adopt from MLS. Can the SPFL call upon a cast of footballing characters, club volunteers and unique match day experiences in a more effective way, influenced by the American approach?

There are a lot of positive things happening on the digital side of Scottish Football right now. Clubs are finding new and interesting ways to develop content and engage with their supporters, and their social media feeds are now worth following outside of 3-5pm on a Saturday. We could be doing a lot more though. We often like to look at what the Premier League are doing in England and compare ourselves with that, we shouldn’t though. For ideas on how to promote our game and really take it to the next level off the pitch, we should actually be looking across the Atlantic.

I should begin with saying, the SPFL’s social media output is great. They’re constantly pushing out content like classic goals, matches and articles to keep fans engaged. Everything looks professional and there’s also just the right amount of humour and engagement with fans. They’ve built up a strong following on the major platforms, made all the more impressive by how small the team behind it is and the budget/resources they’re given to work with.

At club level, some of the content being produced is remarkable. Many lower league clubs have multi-camera highlight packages that actually put a few of their Premiership & Championship counterparts to shame. Berwick’s for example is more than good enough to be used for TV, and on top of that clubs are producing interviews with managers, players and content to promote their upcoming fixtures. There’s lots of good, innovative stuff happening, the problem though is that it isn’t happening across the board.

That isn’t a dig at any specific SPFL club or a call for them to step their social media game up, because it would simply be unfair to do that. Some SPFL clubs are able to have paid communications officers and employees to deal with this side of things, most don’t though, they rely on volunteers. Clubs that are working to the finest of financial margins simply can’t afford to fund a wage, or even equipment or software costs for these guys. These volunteers do it because A) It’s good experience, but mainly B) They love their club. They’re some of the unsung heroes of the Scottish game, and it would be beneficial for everyone if they were given a bit of help.

A centralised pot of money, which is distributed to clubs to be devoted to developing social media and video content would be a massive help. Obviously, it wouldn’t be enough to employ someone at the 42 different clubs, but it would help those who already are, and mean volunteers aren’t having to dip into their own pockets several times a year. Clubs would become more comfortable developing content and perhaps buying into a league-wide strategy if it isn’t eating into any of their playing budget. Now, I can’t sit here and claim to know where that magic pot of money is going to appear from. Whether we take it out of TV money, Celtic’s Champions League windfall, I’m not sure. It wouldn’t have to be a ridiculous amount of money, but it’d be big enough that there’s likely to be some moaning. It could be more than worth it though.

We can take a lot of lessons from MLS. That includes fan and stadium experience, coaching and in particular how they market and promote their league. Their work on social media is some of the best about, and the engagement numbers they receive for being the 4th most popular sport in America is remarkable. They are the kings of getting people hyped and engaged in the goings on of pretty much every club in the Conferences, and their work around the opening week of the league is superb. Obviously, we have to recognise they work with resources and teams of people a country of our size will simply never be able to afford, but we can certainly steal some of their ideas.

What MLS does incredibly well is getting the personality and “characters” of their players across, something we’re certainly not short of in Scotland. We regularly produce absolute maniacs and there’s players that have developed cult hero status at clubs all around the country – these are the people we should be putting at the forefront of the promotion of our game.

In MLS, you’ve got Atlanta’s Josef Martinez, a brilliant footballer with a phenomenal scoring record in America, but also a bit of a character. He’s instantly recognisable and someone that has become associated with the league, and by constantly sharing goals, tricks and interviews etc from him, MLS have been able to develop his personal brand, and create a star in their own league.

We’re working on a smaller scale in Scotland of course, but we have no shortage of personalities. We need people that become instantly associated with Scottish Football. For better or worse, Scott Brown is the most instantly recognisable man in the SPFL. I never thought I’d say this, but…we need more Scott Browns. If we’re ever blessed with more personalities like Jason Cummings, John McGinn or Moussa Dembele, they need promotional rockets strapped to them.

It’s unlikely somebody is going to develop into such a star that punters start flocking to Hamilton to see them, but that’s not the point. Developing their personality can create an attachment and having players that are instantly associated with a specific club, and the league itself can only be a positive thing in terms of marketing and selling the product. Unfortunately, those that do become stars in Scottish Football (or any other league outside the big six for that matter) tend not to stick around too long, but if you develop them and place the idea in the public’s head that they were at least once a product of the SPFL, that will always stick with them.

We can lean a lot from MLS when it comes to story-telling as well. Now, admittedly, a lot of the stories that make Scottish Football so ludicrously brilliant are by-products of clubs being run somewhat shambolically, and usually the controversy that ensues afterwards. That leaves the SPFL and the clubs in a bit of a strange position in terms of what they can actually talk about, but it is still possible. For example, a rivalry has developed between Morton and Falkirk in the last year that has become “box office” and absolutely should be played into. Just like Hibs and Rangers, these are rivalries that have developed organically and the SPFL and the clubs would be mad not to promote the fact. You don’t need to address the incidents which triggered them, but you can certainly take advantage of these teams now hating each other’s guts, and promote the hell out of it.

As I mentioned earlier on, some of the best content MLS produce comes before the season starts, and typically those few weeks at the beginning of the season are where they receive their highest engagement numbers. They’ve benefited over the years from the likes of David Villa, Pirlo and Schweinsteiger bringing their own audiences with them – meaning there was constantly new eyes placed on the league, but players like that are less common now. What they do very well is tell the stories of their clubs, what they’re all about, and what the communities around them are like, so that people can make up their minds on who they identify with most and subsequently who they wish to support.

If we want Scottish Football to reach a wider audience, we have to do that. We’re a step ahead of MLS because our clubs already have fantastic histories, with some amazing stories to tell. Promoting the communities these clubs exist in and for some more than others, the environment, should be a must. Scottish Football has some of the most unique, picturesque surroundings to watch the game anywhere in the world. There are few football grounds left like Gayfield, Cappielow or Somerset Park. These are unique places, in some bizarre surroundings, we should be showcasing that.

This would require an entirely different piece, but Scottish Football has to do much more to promote itself and become accessible to tourists. That would probably require a centralised ticketing system and some help from the government, which at the minute seems quite unlikely, but there’s potentially huge streams of revenue being missed out on. We’ll never become what the English Premiership is (thankfully) but we should absolutely be taking advantage of the millions of tourists that pass through Scotland every year and want to experience the culture. I can think of few better ways to endear someone to our country than a pie, a bovril and a drab 0-0 between East Fife and Montrose in the pissing rain.

One of the biggest criticisms of modern football, England in particular, is that it is faceless, it has lost its soul. It has become so difficult to connect with the multi-millionaires cutting about the pitch that the atmosphere and passion has been sucked from the game, with the working class being driven out by high ticket prices. We don’t have that problem in Scotland, we are still very close to our roots. The SPFL feels real, authentic, and that is something that should be celebrated and promoted.

Simply put, we need more investment put into this side of the game. We need that pot of money for clubs, and we need greater resources handed to the SPFL themselves. We’ll never be able to fully do what MLS does, and we’ll never be able to have full time employees at every club to deal with digital marketing, but we can develop an overall strategy. We can promote our clubs, players, managers, rivalries, ultras, history stadiums and surroundings to audiences in Scotland and around the world. Gavin Gunning’s handball incident, that Ayr pitch invader falling over at Palmerston, the entirety of Rangers “unpleasantness era” – get it all beamed onto the moon before the start of next season. We should be proud of Scottish Football. It is truly unique, and a spectacle at every level. We should be doing everything we can to make sure the world knows about it.

By Evan McFarlane (@EvanMcFarlane)

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